Washington ground game off and running

The fourth game of the 2012 season is when it all seemed to come together for Washington running back Bishop Sankey.

More than once he’s pointed to one play -- which happened exactly a year ago today, as a matter of fact -- as the moment when it all started to click for him. If you know who Washington played a year ago today, you know exactly which play Sankey is referring to: a 61-yard touchdown on fourth down against Stanford that helped propel the Huskies to a 17-13 shocker over the Cardinal.

That play was Sankey’s “Hello, world” moment and got the Huskies faithful thinking maybe life without Chris Polk wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Sankey proved to be remarkably durable and was one of the nation’s elite, if not underappreciated, running backs in 2012, rushing for 1,438 yards and 16 touchdowns.

A year later, with added depth and a healthy offensive line, Sankey and the Washington running game are cruising. Through the first three weeks, the Huskies are averaging 303.7 yards per game on the ground, which ranks ninth nationally. Going back to last season, Sankey has rushed for more than 1,200 yards in Washington’s last seven games, including going for more than 100 yards in six of his last seven and 200-plus in two of the last four. That puts him in a class with names like Corey Dillon and Napoleon Kaufman.

With Washington’s new up-tempo offense taking shape, head coach Steve Sarkisian is pleased with his rushing attack.

“I’ve been impressed with those guys,” Sarkisian said. “We had some question marks at that position coming into the year with Jesse [Callier] and Deontae [Cooper] coming off of ACLs. I think Jesse has really started to improve the last couple of weeks. He played really well against Illinois and again last week against Idaho State. Deontae has come on. He got his first touchdown last week. … I feel like it’s a good position right now with adequate depth.”

Running backs will take center stage when the Huskies host Arizona on Saturday. Sankey enters the game as the country’s No. 2 runner with 148.7 yards per game. Arizona answers with Ka'Deem Carey, last year’s rushing champ.

Through the first three games of last season, things weren’t going so well for Washington on the ground. Part of that had to do with losing Callier in the first game of the year and part of it had to do with their 24 carries for 26 yards at LSU. The Huskies had just 341 yards through the first three games. That’s almost their per-game average this season as they’ve rushed for 911 yards.

The return of Callier and Cooper and the emergence of redshirt freshman Dwayne Washington have taken some of the pressure off of Sankey and allowed him to have more productive carries.

So far Sankey has rushed 64 times for 446 yards and four touchdowns. The backup trio has added 59 carries for 280 yards and four touchdowns.

Also contributing to the run game’s success is consistency on the offensive line. By this time last year, the Huskies had already lost three starters and were trying to get by with a duct-taped front. This year, the same five have the consistency and continuity that last year’s group was lacking.

“It’s huge,” Sarkisian said. “Those same guys have been together since spring practice. We got 15 spring practices, all of training camp and now three games under our belt. I think the continuity is so much better than we’ve been. The communication is there. The guys are working well with one another and they know what to expect from the guy on each side of them. They are doing a good job in the run game being physical and they are protecting well. But the continuity and communication is where it all begins.”